Ugandan Peacemaking: The Loss of Traditional Approaches

James Wagooli

January, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Editors' Note: Although conflict can be useful when it is carried out in a constructive way, James Wagooli, a Ugandan, observes that framing conflict as useful is not helpful in the Uganda context in 2005. He wrote:

Given the complex nature of the Ugandan conflict with all the different ethnicities involved, it is not easy to develop an understanding of conflict as being useful. The traditional cultural arbitrators who helped to interpret complex cultural values are currently extinct in Uganda.

In retrospect, as a young boy at my parent's farm 25 years ago, we were living among a different ethnic tribe. I used to see elderly men with snow-white hair who acted as "peacemakers" in the neighborhood. These individuals used to intervene or mediate locally whenever conflicts occurred.

One night I did not chain up our vicious dogs. The dogs went on a rampage and killed twelve sheep in the village. The next day, our home was surrounded by strangers. They were angry at us, insisting that our dogs had killed their animals. I noticed the elderly snow-white-haired man amidst them. I tried to dispute and challenge the strangers to prove their accusations. But given the track record of our fire-spitting dogs, I knew I had no choice but to let Dad know that the dogs had caused trouble in the neighborhood.

These people sat and waited for my dad to come outside. When he did, a meeting got into process, orchestrated by the "peacemaker" and a fine was assessed. We paid it without any skirmish, the police, or the courts. Hence the taxpayers' monies were saved and no further violence erupted.

By coincidence as I write this, I have just finished reading an article in a local newspaper (the Swazi Times) in Swaziland. A farmer is reported to have opened fire on local villagers, after their vicious dog killed his goat. He later drove and reported the dog attack to the police, but during his absence, they vandalized his house. This is typical now that the local peacemaking systems are forgotten.

Uganda's countryside is now enveloped in a militant culture, infested with gun-toting interventionists. The Local Defense Force (LDU), who sing from a military song sheet written by the bullet, now execute some of the duties or roles that the white-haired "peacemakers" used to perform in the past. But their intervention is typically violent, not peaceful. What has happened to the wisdom of preserving the elders' local, peaceful approach to conflict?